defence connect logo



Ahead of the curve or still just treading water? A closer look at the ‘real’ figures behind the surface fleet review (Part 1)

HMA Ships Brisbane and Ballarat transit through Indonesian archipelagic sea lanes, during an East Asia Deployment (Source: Defence)

The findings of the government’s Independent Analysis into the Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet have been heralded a step change for the future of the Royal Australian Navy, but despite the hype, does it keep pace with regional trends or are we just treading water?

The findings of the government’s Independent Analysis into the Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet have been heralded a step change for the future of the Royal Australian Navy, but despite the hype, does it keep pace with regional trends or are we just treading water?

Fair warning, I know I am going to sound a like a bit of a broken record with this piece – so no need to remind me.

Since the release of the government’s response to the Independent Analysis into the Navy’s Surface Combatant Fleet in February of 2024, there has justifiably been a range of responses but it has been broadly welcomed by defence industry and the broader strategic policy analysis community.


Now this doesn’t mean that it has been without its detractors, with various experts and commentators highlighting major concerns about the costs, timelines, firepower, and the decaying capability already in service with the Navy.

These debates have equally been dominated by the “silver bullet” status Australia’s future fleet of nuclear-powered, conventionally-armed submarines seem to have now achieved, despite the best efforts of some to reiterate that they are part of a “balanced fleet” overall.

Yet against the backdrop of this debate, one question doesn’t appear to have been asked: In light of continued regional developments, is the plan outlined enough to prepare us for the future Indo-Pacific or will we still just be treading water?

Tale of the tape – the super heavyweight division

In order to understand the challenges the future Royal Australian Navy will face, we will have to understand the existing and planned capabilities of the potential competitors we may face in the region.

Beginning with the incumbent heavyweight, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its Navy, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N), both of which are in the middle of the largest peacetime build-up of military capability since the interwar years, if not history.

For the PLA-N, this period of modernisation and expansion has seen it transformed from a coastally-focused “brown water” navy into one of the world’s most powerful and largest, global “blue water” navy capable of protecting Beijing’s interests and partners around the world.

This has been reinforced time and time again by the successive reviews and analysis, with the most recent coming from the US Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, titled, China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Navy Capabilities—Background and Issues which states, “China’s navy is, by far, the largest of any country in East Asia, and sometime between 2015 and 2020 it surpassed the US Navy in numbers of battle force ships (meaning the types of ships that count towards the quoted size of the US Navy).

“The overall battle force [of China’s navy] is expected to grow to 400 ships by 2025 and 440 ships by 2030. The US Navy, by comparison, included 294 battle force ships at the end of FY2021, and the Navy’s FY2024 budget submission projects that the Navy will include 290 battle force ships by the end of FY2030. US military officials and other observers are expressing concern or alarm regarding the pace of China’s naval shipbuilding effort and resulting trend lines regarding the relative sizes and capabilities of China’s navy and the US Navy,” the CRS analysis stated.

This provides the high-level details and projections at least out until the end of this decade, but it provides a base understanding.

For reference, in 2023, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy received a number of highly capable naval vessels, including the delivery of the first Type 054B next-generation frigate class, with shipyards in Shanghai and Guangzhou, respectively, launching their two hulls of the same class in 2023, while two of the preceding Type 054A frigates were commissioned in 2023.

Shifting to the PLA-N’s destroyers, Type 052D fleet has steadily grown, with shipyards at Dalian launching three of five destroyers currently under construction and Shanghai launching at least two of Type 052D. Beijing’s new guided missile cruisers, Type 055, of which 16 are planned and eight are currently active, have at least two currently under construction at shipyards in Shanghai and Dalian respectively, proving slow and steady is the name of the game for these powerful ships.

Beijing’s third and first catapult take-off, arrested landing-based aircraft carrier, Type 003 Fujian, underwent final fitting out, prior to a range of trials, including dead load catapult test launches ahead of sea trials expected to take place this year, meanwhile, Chinese industry really flexed its already prodigious muscles, resulting in the accelerated delivery and launch of the fourth Type 075 amphibious assault ship.

Finally, Beijing’s submarine capability, while far more secretive, saw early signs of expansion with shipyards at Bohai seen to have a number of Type 093 nuclear attack submarine variants with at least a single launch, based on US Defense Department reports, while conventional submarines, also specifically the latest variant of the Type 039C Yuan Class, of which there are currently three in service with five under construction in addition to the existing 20 variants in active service with the PLA-N.

As part of a more granular look into the future, but still building on this, the Congressional Research Service anticipates that compared to 2020, by 2040 the PLA-N fleet will include 10 ballistic missile submarines (+6), 16 nuclear-powered attack submarines (+10), 46 diesel-electric attack submarines (-1), 6 aircraft carriers (+4), 80 cruisers and destroyers (+39), 140 frigates and corvettes (+38). and 6 amphibious assault ships (+6).

China isn’t the only naval power rapidly accelerating its development of impressive naval capabilities that need to be factored into (regardless of their current relationship) Australia’s strategic calculations and as an island nation, naval capability planning, given the nation’s vulnerability to maritime blockade or blockages.

The elephant rising – India’s push into the heavyweight division

India has also embarked on a massive expansion of its naval capabilities as part of delivering what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has described as Indian self-reliance or “Aatmanirbhar Bharat”, with plans to acquire a third aircraft carrier as part of its push back against expanding Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and enhancing their own power projection capability more broadly.

Indian Navy Rear Admiral (Ret’d) Sushil Ramsay explained India’s focus in 2018, “the Indian Navy is determined to create and sustain a three-dimensional, technology enabled, and networked force capable of safeguarding our maritime interests on the high seas and projecting combat power across the littoral”.

This is backed up by an existing and growing fleet of seven guided missile destroyers of the Visakhapatnam and Kolkata classes, respectively, which are slated to be replaced under Project 18 of the Next Generation Destroyer program, with the Indian Navy’s major surface combatant fleet further bulked out with seven Nilgiri and 10 Talwar class “stealth” guided missile frigates, respectively, all of which are expected to be in service by 2030.

Adding further mass to the Indian surface combatant fleet is plans for the construction of a fleet of corvettes ranging in size from 700–3,500 tonnes, with each of the three designs to focus on anti-submarine warfare, general surface warfare and strike capabilities, of which nine of a total of 30 hulls have been launched.

Finally, the Indian Navy’s submarine arm has seen a considerable increase in investment, with a range of nuclear-powered and conventionally-powered attack submarines in various stages of design development, construction or currently in service. Beginning with India’s nuclear-powered submarine fleet, the nuclear power currently has a single Chakra III (Akula) Class attack submarine in service, with six nuclear-powered attack submarines planned for delivery from 2032 under Project 75 Alpha.

The submarine fleet is further bulked out with two currently in service Arihant Class ballistic missile submarines of which a further vessel has been launched, with a fourth and final submarine under construction, these will be expanded upon with three of the S5 ballistic missile submarines. Conventionally-powered submarines also serve an important role in the Indian submarine force, with five of a total of nine Kalvari Class submarines (based on the French Scorpene) in service, with the remainder expected in service by the end of the decade, these are to be supported by six 3–4,000-tonne submarines as part of Project 75I with both to be replaced/supplemented by 12 submarines to be built under Project 76.

All of this combines to build a force focused on one thing, as the US Central Intelligence Agency stated in a declassified report, titled, India’s Navy and Its Indian Ocean Strategy: Pursuing Regional Predominance, “New Delhi’s Indian Ocean strategy centres on maritime defence and the assertion of its leadership over other regional states ... New Delhi believes others in the region must not be able to threaten India militarily or be allowed to act in a way that may destabilise the area and invite outside interference in the region.”

Hardly surprising developments for one of the world’s key rising powers and the second major strategic pole for the Indo-Pacific.

The light heavyweight

A little closer to home now, Indonesia is rapidly growing in economic, political, and strategic importance both within the region and globally, with the security of the littoral environment across the archipelago and maritime lines of communication, mainly the Straits of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda, and the nation’s claims over the South China Sea all coming into play.

Indonesia’s naval build-up is designed to fundamentally reshape the emerging great power’s naval capabilities, with immense investments in its major surface combatant fleet and submarine fleet, respectively.

In terms of major surface combatants, the Indonesian Navy is slated to receive two British-built Arrowhead 140 general purpose frigates, slated to enter service in the 2025–26 timeframe. Indonesia will also receive six Italian-built FREMM frigates alongside two modernised Maestrale Class frigates formerly of the Italian Navy. And finally, the Indonesian Navy is scheduled to receive eight Mogami Class frigates, four of which will be built in Japan and four will be built locally, bringing the Indonesian Navy’s “new” major surface combatant frigate fleet to 18.

These are further supported by two Martadinata frigates based on the Dutch Sigma Class and five Ahmad Yani Class frigates based on the British Leander Class frigates (to be replaced by the FREMM), in addition, the Indonesian Navy fields a range of guided-missile corvettes and patrol corvettes, including four of the Diponegoro Class also based on the Dutch Sigma Class and three British-built, Bung Tomo Class corvettes.

Indonesia’s submarine arm is undergoing a suite of upgrades through the recently announced planned acquisition of two Scorpene Class conventionally-powered submarines, in addition to six Nagapasa Class upgraded variants of the South Korean Jang Bogo Class submarines.

Not quite at the level of the Chinese or Indian modernisations, Indonesia’s are still impressive given its developing nation status and don’t take into account the large number of smaller surface combatants that are optimal for the littoral and archipelagic environment the Indonesian Navy is expected to primarily operate in.

Jakarta-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) researcher Gilang Kembara summarised the Indonesian focus, saying, “Voices in and around the defence establishment have set their sights on establishing a blue water navy by 2045, the centennial of Indonesian independence. By then, the Navy has envisaged that it will fulfil its target of possessing 274 naval vessels and 137 fixed and rotary-wing air assets. Currently, TNI-AL possesses around 148 naval vessels and 76 fixed and rotary-wing air assets spread across three fleets.”

The middleweights

Moving further north, the island city-state of Singapore, gateway to both the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea, is watching and recapitalising its own formidable naval capabilities with an emphasis on building redundancy while prioritising tactical and strategic flexibility and lethality in the region.

The existing Singaporean Navy’s surface combatant fleet is relatively modern, centred around six Formidable Class multi-mission frigates based upon the French La Fayette Class frigates – the last of which was delivered in 2009 – which are, in most respects, broadly comparable to Australia’s Anzac Class of frigates.

However, in light of the rapid militarisation and expansion of naval capabilities transforming many Asian navies, Singapore has announced plans to supplement the Formidable Class fleet and replace the ageing Victory Class missile corvettes with a fleet of six multi-role combat vessels based on a hybrid of the Iver Huitfeldt Class frigate and the Absalon class frigate, respectively, providing a degree of amphibious warfare capability in a frigate-style package.

These are also supported by a fleet of eight Independence Class “littoral mission vessels” and a fleet of four to be built. The offshore patrol vessels will be designed by German shipbuilder Fasmer in order to provide maritime security and response capabilities through Singapore’s maritime sphere of influence and areas of interest and responsibility.

By far the most significant area of development is in Singapore’s submarine fleet, with the city-state to field a fleet of four advanced, conventionally-powered Invincible Class submarines based on ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems Type 218SG, with the fourth and final submarine expected to be welcomed into service with the Republic of Singapore Navy by the end of 2024.

Singapore’s approach has been to build a navy capable of executing and maintaining a degree of sea control, particularly through the Malacca and Singapore Strait and into the South China Sea in order to protect the maritime lifelines Singapore’s economy depends upon.

Shifting a little further north is Malaysia, not typically a nation associated with being a naval power but one rapidly modernising and expanding its naval capability in order to secure its vast maritime interests across the southern end of the South China Sea and through the Strait of Malacca into the eastern end of the Indian Ocean.

At the forefront of Malaysia’s naval development is the acquisition of five Maharaja Lela Class frigates, based on an enlarged variant of the French Gowind 2500 Class corvettes, supported by two older, British-built Lekiu Class frigates. Shifting down the tiers of naval warship power, the Malaysians have also actively expanded their offshore patrol vessel fleet to expand their presence via the Kedah and Keris class offshore patrol vessels, respectively.

This is part of the Malaysian Navy’s ambitious plan to completely modernise the Royal Malaysian Navy as part of its “15 to 5” transformation strategy that will see the current fleet of 15 various classes of warship consolidated into a fleet of five individual class of ship in order to benefit from economies of scale for production, training and through-life maintenance and sustainment.

The “15 to 5” strategy will ultimately see the Royal Malaysian Navy become a relative regional powerhouse, with the ambitious plan resulting in a planned fleet including 18 new generation patrol vessels (six already commissioned and in service), 18 littoral mission vessels (four are under construction), 12 littoral combat ships (six of which are under construction) and three multi-role support ships.

But this is only the beginning, with the Malaysian Navy beginning the acquisition of eight Turkish-designed Ada Class corvettes to be part of the second batch of the country’s Littoral Combat Ship program, this fleet will also provide escort responsibilities for three planned “multi-role support ships” of which there are a number of contenders, including France’s Mistral Class LHDs, China’s Type 075 LHD and Type 071 LPD, respectively.

Finally, Malaysia has joined the regional submarine race, with a fleet of four Scorpene Class conventional submarines, two of which are currently in service, with an extra two more planned, with plans to grow this fleet in the future.

In the second part of this short series, we will take a closer look at the remaining rising naval powers including Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand, before turning our attention to the developments transforming Japan and South Korea and a detailed analysis of whether Australia’s planned naval expansion is truly putting us ahead of the pack or if we are, in fact, just treading water.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!